If thirty-two year old Eugene Pavelik had known how to find the beach community of Port Aransas, he never would have stopped for the scruffy hitchhiker on Highway 59. Dusk was rapidly waning and in the coming dark, he knew he'd be totally lost in the jumble of unfamiliar roads that led to his holiday hideaway. He needed help.
In the rear view mirror of his five-year old Cadillac, he watched as the slightly built hitchhiker shuffled toward him. He was surprised at how much older the shabbily dressed man was than most guys who stick out their thumbs. The man was cradling a gray canvas gym bag in his arms and for a moment, the frightening thought of a possible weapon flitted through Eugene's mind. Before his hand made it to the door lock button, the older man tugged at the door handle and pulled it open. He slid onto the seat and unzipped the gym bag.
"Hope you don't mind," he croaked in a voice that sounded as though his morning routine included gargling with broken glass and sandpaper. He pulled out a disheveled lump of hair with legs and plopped it on his lap. It was a small Terrier mix with a red kerchief around its neck. The mutt licked his master's hand once, closed his eyes, and settled into a snooze. "That's Toby. Been my only friend for the last eight years." When Eugene slipped on a weak smile, the man continued. "Say amigo, you wouldn't by any chance have some lunch leftovers, would you? Toby really could use something to munch on."
Eugene looked at his new traveling companion. The man also sported a red kerchief around his neck and wore a black knit cap on his head. He appeared to need the leftovers as much as the dog. "Um, sorry. I ate at a Dairy Queen in Victoria a little while back. Cleaned my plate." The rider nodded and Eugene asked, "How far you going?"
"Toby and me, we're going to the place I was born, Port Aransas."
Eugene beamed. "What an amazing coincidence. That's where I'm headed. I have a week's vacation from my job in Houston and I have a reservation at Pirate's Cove Resort Condos. I'm sure glad I met you because I'm not sure how to get there."
"How 'bout that?" The old man flashed a gap toothed grin as his weathered hand smoothed out a tangle in the dog's hair. "A few miles up ahead in Refugio, you gotta get off Highway 77 and onto 2678. Tell you more later. Don't want to confuse you." The old man stared at the logo on the steering wheel and closed his eyes as if remembering something pleasant. "This a Caddy, huh? Reminds me of the time Elvis give me one."
Eugene's mouth dropped open and he took his eyes off the road for a second. "Elvis Presley? He gave you a Cadillac?"
"Yeah. Ugly color. Canary yellow as I remember. Sort of a goodbye present. One of his regular singers got deathly ill and I sang backup for him in Vegas for a few weeks. That was back when I sang and played harmonica for my supper. He wanted me to come to Nashville with him, but I turned him down."
"Well, uh... what was he like?"
"Good guy. One weakness though. Never met a fourteen or fifteen year old girl he didn't like. Went through a bunch of 'em on that trip."
"Wait a second. You say you sang with him?"
The older man nodded. "Yeah. Hard to believe, huh? I didn't always sound like this, you know. Sinatra changed that."
"You're pulling my leg aren't you?"
"I worked Vegas when I was young. Met a lot of the big names. When I got a pickup gig from Sinatra's bandleader, I guess I went nuts. Thought I had it made. Trouble was, I celebrated with a bottle of vodka before the show. Got so drunk, I embarrassed Frank onstage. After the show, he told Eddie, one of his boys to get rid of me. Frank told me later that he meant I should be fired, but Eddie misunderstood. Within minutes, I found my harmonica being forced down my throat. Frank's manager saw what was happening or I wouldn't be here now. Sinatra paid for the hospital and had a check for ten thousand dollars sent over to my room. Doctors said it was a busted larynx and ripped vocal cords."
Eugene didn't know if the man was letting him in on real secrets of show business or inventing stories, but it was an entertaining way to spend time. "How did you make a living after that?"
"I blew the ten thousand in no time and then I just started drifting like the sand on the beach where I was born." He paused for several seconds and when he spoke again, fatigue had crept into his voice. "I gotta go back there tonight before it's too late." After that, the man pulled his cap down and faced the window. Except for the necessary directions he gave to Eugene, he kept silent. They made it to Aransas Pass, went over a bridge that spanned the Intracoastal Waterway and continued on to the free ferry that would connect the mainland to Port Aransas on Mustang Island.
The old man drew in an audible breath and croaked, "I can smell it now." He looked down at the dog. "So can Toby."
Indeed, noted Eugene, Toby was stirring. "What? What do you smell?"
"It's the sea. The salt air of the Gulf of Mexico. It's good to be home."
In just five minutes, the ferry glided across the waters of the ship channel and Eugene said, "I guess we're finally here. Where to now?"
The older man nodded, chucked Toby under his hairy chin and said, "End of the line, little buddy." He looked ahead through the windshield and cleared his throat. "The place you want is up ahead a couple of blocks, but I'd really appreciate it if you could take me just a little further to where I'm going."
Eugene followed the man's simple directions and within minutes, the Caddy was on the Port Aransas city beach. Streetlights spaced out at two block intervals showed the hard packed sand that served as the road to where the old man wanted to go, the South Jetty. It was a line of jagged boulders that formed the building blocks of a quarter mile walkway into the waters of the Gulf. The car stopped only a few yards away from the jetty and the rider smiled.
"You done good boy. That's where I'll be staying for the night."
On the opposite side of the jetty was the cut between Mustang Island and San Jose Island where the ocean going vessels exited Corpus Christi Bay. Eugene saw no shelter for the man. "You're gonna stay there?" he asked.
In response, the other man took off his knit cap and placed it on the gym bag. He slipped off the tattered and filthy sneakers he wore and scooped up the dog. Pushing open the door, he got out of the car and stepped over to the jetty. He suddenly stopped and placed the dog on a boulder so that he could use his hands to undo the belt holding up his pants and pull off his shirt. In an instant, the older man was naked.
"Hey!" Eugene shouted over the sound of the surf and the wind. What's going on here?"
" This is it for me boy. Ain't going nowhere no more." He kissed the dog's forehead and held Toby out to the younger man. "Here, you hold him while I get down." Eugene took the dog as his rider eased himself down and took up a cross-legged position on the sand. "This here is the very spot where my mother gave birth to me. That night, my father was over there on the rocks fighting a fish for their meal. She suddenly went into labor and out I came no bigger than the fish he had on the line. They washed the sand off me with the sea water." He saw Eugene begin to gather up the discarded clothing and shook his head. "Don't bother, boy. I won't need them where I'm going. It's my ticker. Ain't got much power left. I'm going back where I came from dressed the way I was when I got here. You take Toby. He ain't fancy. Table scraps are OK with him."
Eugene held onto the old man's clothing and approached the dog. "I don't feel right leaving you like this. It's not humane. It's not..."
"Soon as you get to your resort hotel, you pick up the phone and call the cops. Let them take care of me." The older man coughed twice. His head slumped down and he took a shallow breath. After a pause, he brought his face up to look straight into Eugene's eyes. "Nothing you can do for me now. Just go. Feed Toby."
Eugene backed away, the dog cradled in his arms. He sensed that the naked man had very little time left and that it was senseless to argue. When he got to the car, he placed Toby on the man's cap. With a last look back, he drove away. As he left the sandy road for the paved streets, a thin, high-pitched noise from inside the car caught his attention. The warning lights on the dash were not lit. There was no visible indication of a malfunction so after two blocks, he pulled over and shut off the engine. The noise continued. As he opened the door to get out and check the engine, the dog stopped making the sound, took the knit cap into his teeth and jumped down from the seat onto the pavement.
"Toby! Come back here. Toby!" he shouted as he saw the dog run off. He knew where the dog was going and also knew that the dog would be picked up when they got his call about the man at the jetty. He would go to the pound in a day or two and pick up the dog as if it was his own. He would feed Toby as the man had requested.
Two days later, he found a small story about the hitchhiker on page two, section B of the local paper. It said that an unidentified nude man was found dead on the sand next to the South Jetty. The police found no indication of foul play and the authorities thought the man was a drifter who stripped because he wanted to cool off, but the effort was too much for his heart. One officer said that a small dog was found at the scene. He was also dead. The officer speculated, "Probably from malnutrition."
Eugene folded the newspaper and put it down on the table poolside at the Pirate's Cove. The pretty girl who was serving him a cold drink was startled when he said, "They can call it malnutrition if they want. I know better. That dog died of a broken heart."
back to the Short Story Page.Hearts In The Sand, 1 August 2005